Once upon a time, Game of Thrones didn’t do proper finales. In those first three seasons, as showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss worked to establish the show, Game of Thrones maintained a strange rhythm rarely seen on other shows—the big climax came in the penultimate episodes, and the finale functioned as a reset button, where everyone picked up the pieces and found their marks for next year. It wasn’t until Season 4, when the show reached the end of Martin’s opening trilogy, that a finale hit with the same force as the penultimate episodes.
Qyburn: “Sometimes before we can usher in the new, the old has to be put to rest.”
But although we have now had three proper finales in a row, none felt quite so final as “The Winds of Winter.” The end of Season 4 seemed to suggest a new chapter was going to begin for many of our players (Tyrion left King’s Landing, Stannis arrived at the Wall), while last year’s finale was a nadir, the darkest hour in a show that had plumbed the depths of darkness all season (Jon Snow and Stannis killed, Arya blinded). This season, the show put on what might just be its finest hour to date, as our character found themselves with everything they ever wanted since they were old enough to know what wanting was. But what did it cost them?
Cersei Lannister is Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, and all that opposed her are dead. Jon Snow is King in the North, and the Houses all stand behind him, ready to fight the Night King. Arya Stark is murdering her enemies with the training she got from the Faceless Men. Sam has found heaven in the form of the greatest library in the world. (Complete with those same astrolabes that light up the opening map!) Tyrion Lannister is Hand of the Queen, not because his father gave it to him, but because he earned it. And Daenerys Targaryen is coming to Westeros with her unstoppable army.
But for every “happy” ending in this finale, a shadow looms. The largest shadow, of course, was the pall cast by the first half an hour of the program, dedicated to King’s Landing. The show, which has always operated on a round-robin format, switched things up a bit, with the opening scene taking up around a third of the hour. We’ve had episodes dominated by long sequences before (“The Lion and the Rose,” “Hardhome”), but never at the bottom of the hour rather than the top. But then again, everything about King’s Landing was topsy-turvy. The music, for instance, was striking—this was a track that sounded like nothing we had heard under our scenes in Westeros before, and with good reason. Even as we contrasted Margaery’s hair being braided for her with the High Sparrow shrugging himself into his plain shift, something already seemed very wrong.
Cersei: “Confess it felt good beating me, starving me, frightening me, humiliating me. You didn’t do it because you care about my atonement, you did it because it felt good.”
In one fell swoop, Cersei took out everyone in King’s Landing who stood in her way, in the show’s largest bloodbath to date. (Olenna asked her sneeringly the last time she saw her: “What are you going to do, kill them all yourself?” Turns out the answer was, “Well actually…”) The High Sparrow. Margaery, Mace, and Loras Tyrell. Kevan and Lancel Lannister. Pycelle. Even Tommen. (His absence, more than Cersei’s, seemed to be what triggered Margaery’s certainty that something terrible was about to befall them all.)
By leaving her son in his chamber to watch the destruction of the Sept, she revealed to him who would really be running things from here on out, and Tommen, knowing that he could never stand up to such a horror, did the only thing he could. He took off his crown, threw himself out the window, and joined her death toll. Ten episodes ago, it would have been the ultimate punishment for her. Now it was just another notch on her belt, and with him gone, there was nothing to stop her from sitting on the Iron Throne herself: Cersei Lannister, First of Her Name, the Mad Queen.
But although Cersei might have achieved her happily ever after, the shadow lies in wait. Down south, Olenna and Varys have finally come together to solve a problem like Dorne. (It turns out that having the Queen of Thrones insult the Sand Snakes on the audience’s behalf is the answer.) In doing so, they also join forces with Dany and her oncoming army to take out the Lannisters. But the shadow also sits watching closer to home, as well. Jaime rides to King’s Landing, thinking he will rescue Cersei from her trial, only to discover she’s moved beyond his help. And the horror he once worked so hard to prevent—the horror that drove him to slay his own king, forever ruining his name—had been perpetrated by his own flesh and blood, at least in part.
Walder Frey: “Here we are now, two Kingslayers!”
Jaime wasn’t the only shadow standing in the wings. Earlier that evening, another stood in the corner, watching him and Walder Frey. When Jaime saw her, she smiled coquettishly and looked away, like a serving girl caught staring at the highborn lord. But that face was merely one she wore. Underneath, we learned that serving wench had minced Walder Frey’s sons into the pie. Underneath that face was Arya Stark.
Audiences at home were probably thrilled to see Walder die at Arya’s hand. I have so many questions, starting with whether Arya just grabbed a few faces from the hall on her way out the door. Also, are we really supposed to cheer on Arya, whose face was as placid and cold as Cersei’s surveying the body of her last child before declaring his body should be burnt, and his ashes added to the pile of those now were mixed in among the smoking ruins of the Sept? Arya Stark of Winterfell is supposedly going home, and may yet return there, once news of Jon and Sansa’s great victory spreads. But the girl who left Winterfell so long ago is a cold-blooded killer now, and one that should frighten anyone she meets.
Not that Sansa is much warmer. The scene between her and Jon earlier in the episode was one of the few sweet spots in the episode, as they cheer on the official arrival of winter. (Dad did always promise it would come.) But although Sansa says that only a fool trusts Littlefinger, the man still poured poison in her ear about how she was the trueborn Stark, while Jon is “a motherless southerner.” The way the smile slowly slipped from her face as she caught Littlefinger’s eye, surrounded by chants of “King In The North,” is worrisome. How long until her own ambitions begin to cloud her eyes to the truth of Littlefinger’s dream? It is he who sits upon the Iron Throne, not her.
Tyrion: “I’ve been a cynic for as long as I can remember. Everyone’s always asking me to believe in things: family, gods, kings, myself. It was often tempting until I saw where belief got people. I said no thank you to belief. Yet here I am. I believe in you.”
If Littlefinger and Sansa take Jon Snow down, there will be no resurrection, either. Jon Snow has gone and done the honorable thing again, dismissing Melisandre from his service after learning she burned Shireen at the stake. It may be true that these are the sorts of things he does not want done in his name. (Melisandre’s declaration last week that she’ll do whatever her god tells her, and pay no mind to Jon’s orders, probably played into his decision.) But we already know that doing the “honorable” thing is also usually the stupid thing, at least in a world where the enemies are bringing the storm wherever they go.
Those enemies aren’t just in the North, either. A woman who is literally named Stormborn is finally turning her back on Essos, Meereen, and even Daario Naharis. She has no need for love. She only needs the best of those around her, be it their swords, their ships, or their wisdom. It may seem like a bit of a motley crew aboard those ships, from Theon to Yara to Grey Worm to Missandei to newly appointed Hand of the Queen Tyrion to Time Traveler extraordinaire Varys, but together with her dragons, they make a fearsome team. Westeros is never going to know what hit it.
But the shadow of the past awaits. Dany is not the only Targaryen in the world. Littlefinger may call him a motherless southerner. Lyanna Mormont may have just crowned him King in the North. But tonight, after nearly 20 long years since A Game of Thrones was first published, we finally saw what happened inside the Tower of Joy. We finally saw Lyanna whisper to Ned Stark, and hand him that baby, the one he took back to Winterfell and told everyone was his bastard. (Nice cut from the baby to Jon’s face, by the way.) And although the show didn’t spell it out for us this time, it didn’t matter much. R+L=J. It will have to do, as the shadow of the long wait for Season 7 is cast over us all.